Performance Sunday, February 24, 2013 | 2 PM

The English Concert

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
David Daniels triumphs as Radamisto,” declared Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times after hearing the countertenor at the Santa Fe Opera; Luca Pisaroni, as the volatile antagonist, was positively “charismatic.” Daniels and Pisaroni both reprise their roles here at Carnegie Hall, joined by The English Concert under Harry Bicket, in a concert performance of Handel’s opera of lust, revenge, and the power of virtue.
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The Program


Radamisto, opera in three acts

About the Composer

In early days of the internet, an essay made the rounds recounting misremembered history from the test papers of grade-school students. "Handel," wrote one young respondent, "was half German, half Italian, and half English. He was very large." Despite the dubious math, it was a pretty fair assessment of the composer's brilliant career. Unfortunate reference to his girth notwithstanding, it also accurately depicts his presence in England's musical life.

Born in Halle to a provincial Saxon family, Handel would grow up to become the canniest and most cosmopolitan of composers. By the time he discovered England in 1710, he had already held positions as a local church organist and theater musician, and had extensively toured Italy (at the invitation of a Medici), engaging with opera's most current practices and practitioners. It was a formidable background for a composer about to encounter a growing taste for Italian opera among London's nobility.

Having savored success with Rinaldo (1711), his first opera written expressly for English audiences, Handel grew less content with his recent court position and looked to extend his London presence. (His employer, in effect, soon followed: Through imperial politics, Elector Georg of Hanover became King George I of England.) But it was not merely the lure of fame; Handel saw the need to keep constant tabs on fickle English audiences.

A veteran of Hamburg's commercial Theater am Gänsemarkt, Handel became a master of creating his own opportunities, and within 15 years he would have a hand in launching three opera companies in London. By the 1730s, however, English audiences had forsaken Italian opera in favor of more linguistically digestible works. Once again, the nimble Handel changed direction, and English-language oratoriossuch as Israel in Egypt (1739) and Messiah (1742)would ensure his fame long after his early operas had fallen out of fashion.

About the Work

Besides being one of Handel's more musically substantial stage works, Radamisto stands as a prime example of a pragmatic composer taking matters of production into his own hands. His first new opera in five yearsand the first serious rival to his early success with Rinaldothe piece was Handel's contribution for the new Royal Academy of Music, a subscription-based opera company founded in 1719 by members of the London aristocracy. Radamisto saw its initial premiere in the spring of 1720 at King's Theatre, Haymarket, the prime venue for Italian opera in London at that time.

The opera's libretto, attributed to Nicola Francesco Haym, was an adaptation of Domenico Lalli's Florentine play L'amour tiranico, itself an adaptation of Georges de Scudéry's Parisian tragicomedy L'amour tyrannique, which was loosely based on Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome. Traditionally, an opera's dedication was a privilege of the librettist, but given the text's dubious lineage, Handel reserved that right for himself. Whether to soothe any residual resentment over his delinquency in Hanoveror out of sincere admiration for his one-time patron and current SovereignHandel dedicated Radamisto to George I, acknowledging the king's encouragement "not so much as it is the Judgment of a Great Monarch, as of one of a most refined Taste in the Art."

That Handel later chose to revise Radamisto so heavily that same year hardly reflects on its initial receptionthe original production ran for a respectable 10 performancesbut rather indicates the opportunities that presented themselves for the Academy's second season. Given that the original showed such a marked advance in musical structure and dramatic conception over the usual operatic fareoften cobbled from several sources, giving singers clear preference over composersit bears mentioning that Handel would rework so much of his material when more desirable singers became available.

Handel had been charged by the Academy to recruit the best singers available on the continent, and went on to secure commitments not only from castrato Francesco Bernardi (the famous "Senesino," who went on to premiere many of Handel's operas, including the title roles in Orlando and Giulio Cesare), but also soprano Margherita Durastanti and bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi.

The revised Radamisto that premiered in December 1720 differed considerably from what audiences had seen the previous April. Eight arias had been removed and 10 new ones added, mostly featuring Senesino in the title role. Much of the remaining music was altered to fit the new voice types: Besides Radamisto being changed from soprano to alto castrato, Zenobia had changed from alto to soprano, and Tiridate from tenor to bass. Another notable change in the later version was the addition of the quartet "O ceder o perir" ("Assign or perish") at the end of Act III.

Three of the arias that had been cut had been written for Fraarte, a mere foot soldier in the original libretto whose status was augmented in Handel's setting to accommodate the singer premiering the role. With the initial cast change, Fraarte's arias expressing his love for Zenobia wound up on the proverbial cutting-room floor. For two further revivalsfirst in November 1721 and again in1728the role of Fraarte was cut altogether.

The Story

The action takes place in and around Thrace, in Asia Minor, "in the 12th year of Claudius, the 53rd year of our Savior."

Tiridate, king of the neighboring state of Armenia, has become consumed with lust for Zenobia, the wife of Radamisto, who is the son of Farasmane, king of Thrace. Tiridate has invaded Thrace to abduct Zenobia, but has hid his intentions. Farasmane has been captured, and Tiridate is now laying siege to the city where Radamisto and Zenobia are encamped.

Act I. Polissena, Tiridate's loyal wife, prays in despair at her husband's neglect. Tiridate's ally Tigrane, who is in love with Polissena, urges her to leave him, but without success. Tiridate orders that Radamisto be killed and the city destroyed. Polissena pleads for mercy towards Radamisto, but Tiridate dismisses her. Farasmanenow in chainsasks to speak to his son, and Tiridate agrees to a meeting between the two. Radamisto then learns that unless he surrenders the city, his father will be executed and the city stormed mercilessly. Farasmane urges him to resist. When Radamisto hesitates, Zenobia fears that he will surrender her to Tiridate, and begs him to kill her instead to end the conflict. Tigrane then successfully captures the city. Tiridate reluctantly agrees that Farasmane may live if Radamisto and Zenobia are brought to him.

Act II. Radamisto and Zenobia have escaped through an underground passageway and emerge on a riverbank. Enemy soldiers soon appear, and a despairing Zenobia begs her husband to kill her lest she fall into Tiridate's hands. When Radamisto's half-hearted stabbing fails, Zenobia tries to jump into the river. Enemy soldiers led by Tigrane capture Radamisto and rescue Zenobia. Tigrane, offering to help Radamisto, takes him to Polissena. Radamisto, disguised as a soldier, asks Polissena to take him to Tiridate, vowing to kill him and thereby avenge Zenobia's honor, but she refuses. Tiridate continues to pursue Zenobia, but is interrupted by Tigrane, who announces that Radamisto is dead. Tigrane shows her Radamisto's torn garments and calls in a messenger to describe his death. The messenger (actually Radamisto in disguise) gives an account of Radamisto's final words, proclaiming his love for Zenobia and urging her to continue resisting Tiridate. Recognizing Radamisto's voice, Zenobia vows to do so. Tiridate tries to enlist the "messenger" to help him win over Zenobia, then leaves the two alone for a joyful but covert reunion.

Act III. Now repelled by Tiridate's tyranny, Tigrane conspires to bring him to reason. Tiridate greets Zenobia as the queen of Thrace and Armenia, but she persists in rejecting him. When he tries to force himself on her, Radamisto bursts in, armed with a sword. Polissena intervenes to keep Radamisto from killing Tiridate, but meanwhile Farasmane accidentally reveals Radamisto's identity. Tiridate orders Radamisto's execution, which Polissena protests. Zenobia is determined to die with her husband, but Tiridate offers her a choice: Either become his wife or see her husband beheaded. In the temple, the executions are about to take place when Polissena finally defies her despot husband. She announces that Tigrane has led the army into revolt and is now surrounding them. Radamisto asks Polissena to pardon Tiridate, which she does, much to her husband's surprise. Tiridate returns to the throne of Armenia, which he promises to rule with mercy. Farasmane is restored as ruler of Thrace, while Radamisto and Zenobia celebrate their happy reunion.

Ken Smith

 © 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation